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Illegal Evictions – What They Are and What You Can Do

Contents

    It is illegal for your landlord to evict you without first going to court and getting an eviction order. Without an eviction order, your landlord can’t do anything that prevents you from having access to your home. If your landlord gets an eviction order, only a sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, or court bailiff can physically remove you and your belongings from your home.

    If your landlord does anything to remove you from your home or to keep you out of your home without an eviction order, you can sue your landlord. If the judge rules in your favor, you may be able to stay in your home or regain possession of it. You might also be able to recover your actual damages or $200.00, whichever is more. To learn more about actual damages, read the “Getting Damages” section below. If your landlord uses force to put or keep you out, you may be entitled to three times your actual damages.

    Unlawful Interference

    Your landlord cannot unlawfully interfere with your right to live in your rented home. Your landlord cannot:

    • Use force or threaten to use force to make you leave or keep you out of your home

    • Enter your home without your permission, unless it’s an emergency

    • Take, keep, or destroy your property

    • Change or add locks or security devices to your home without your permission

    • Board up the home to keep you from entering or make entry hard

    • Cause an interruption or shut-off of water, electric, or gas service

    • Cause loud noises, bad odors, or other nuisances in or around your home

    • Put your belongings out on the street

    • Refuse to repair problems that are so bad you have to move out or the home is condemned by local authorities

    It is not unlawful interference if your utilities are turned off because you did not pay your bill. If you lose your water, light, or heat because you didn’t pay your bill, you must deal directly with the utility company to get it service restored.

    If your landlord does any of these things without an eviction order, you have the right to move back in. To learn more about your right to move back in, read the “After an Illegal Eviction” section below. You may also have the right to get money for damages to you or your property.

    The Use of Force

    If your landlord uses force to make you move or to keep you out of your home, you have the right to move back in. Force is any physical act that puts you in danger of injury. It is also force if your landlord tricks you into moving out of your home. To learn more about your right to move back in, read the “After an Illegal Eviction” section below.

    If a judge or jury finds your landlord used or threatened physical force against you, you can get three times the amount of your actual damages. If your actual damages total less than $200.00, you could get at least $200.00.

    Getting Help

    There are many resources to help tenants who have been illegally evicted. Use Community Services and Find a Lawyer to find resources. Sometimes, just getting a lawyer to call or write a letter to your landlord can resolve the situation.

    Your Landlord’s Rights

    In general, your landlord cannot interfere with your right to live in your home as a tenant. However, there are times your landlord can interfere or come into your home. This is called lawful interference. It includes:

    • Acting under a court order

    • Entering your home with permission to make necessary repairs or inspections

    • Believing you abandoned the property or died

    Acting Under a Court Order

    If your landlord has a court order to evict you, it is still not lawful for your landlord to enter your home. Even if your landlord has an eviction order, only a sheriff, sheriff's deputy, or court bailiff can physically remove you and your belongings from your home. Read Eviction after Court Is Over to learn more about the eviction process.

    Making Necessary Repairs or Inspections

    Your landlord can temporarily enter your home to make repairs or inspect your home. The repairs or inspection must be necessary. Your landlord cannot board up windows, shut-off basic utilities, or cause loud noises longer than needed.

    Your landlord must keep your home in a safe and sanitary condition. A landlord can only make repairs and inspections allowed by the law. Your landlord must provide notice and get your permission to enter your home before making these repairs unless there’s an emergency. Read Tenant Rights and Responsibilities to learn more.

    Believing You Abandoned the Home

    A landlord who believes you abandoned your home may enter your home. It must be a good faith belief. This means your landlord honestly believed you would not come back.

    Before entering, your landlord must make a diligent effort to make sure you would not come back to your home. This includes:

    • Inspecting the property for your personal belongings

    • Asking neighbors if you moved out

    • Trying to locate you or your family members to see if you moved

    • Seeing if you canceled telephone or cable services

    If your rent is current your landlord cannot enter your home based only on a belief that you abandoned it.

    Believing You Died

    A landlord who believes you died may enter your home. Before doing this, your landlord must do all of the following:

    • Have asked you for contact information of someone to call if you die (this is usually done around the time you move in)

    • Try to reach the contact person within 28 days after starting to believe you died

    • Believe you have been dead for at least 18 days

    • Believe there is no other surviving tenant

    • Place a notice on the door of the property stating an intent to reenter and throw out all personal property inside in 10 days if you do not respond

    • Notify a probate court public administrator of the intent to reenter

    • Not have gotten rent for the current period

    Evicting a Trespasser

    A landlord can remove a trespasser but not a tenant. A trespasser is someone who takes or keeps possession of the home with no legal right to it. If you are a tenant, you have a legal right to the property. If you use force or trickery to get into the home or keep it, you are a trespasser. Trespassers do not have the same rights as tenants.

    After an Illegal Eviction

    As a tenant, you have rights if your landlord interferes with your possession of your home.

    Peacefully Regaining Possession

    You may try to repossess your property before going to court, but you must do it peacefully. This means you cannot use or threaten physical force against your landlord. But you can use physical force against the property. For example, if your landlord changes the locks on your home, you may break the locks and reenter if your landlord is not around. Or you can call the local police to ask for help.

    Going to Court to Regain Possession

    If you were illegally evicted and you cannot peacefully reenter your home, you can sue your landlord to regain possession of your home. You must file your case within 90 days of your landlord’s illegal eviction or when you realized you could not reenter your property. If you win the case, the court will enter an order that says the landlord must let you move back in.

    An illegal eviction case is complicated and takes time. It is very important to keep the best records you can of what happens, including receipts and photos.

    There is no form you can use to start an illegal eviction case. You may want to talk to a lawyer about getting back into your home. Use Find a Lawyer to look for legal help in your area. If you need a lawyer and are low-income, you may qualify for free legal help.

    Getting Damages

    If you were illegally evicted, you can sue your landlord for your actual damages. Actual damages include damage to your property. They include money you spent because of the illegal eviction, such as paying for other housing while you were evicted. They may also include damages for the emotional stress and embarrassment you suffered as a result of the lockout.

    You are entitled to your actual damages or $200.00 per lockout occurrence. You may get three times the amount of your actual damages to your personal property if your landlord used or threatened physical force against you or if you have a claim for conversion. To learn more about conversion, read the “Claims for Conversion” section below. You can ask the judge for damages as part of your case to recover your home. Or you can start a damages case separately. You can also file these as counterclaims in an eviction case, if your landlord files one.

    You must bring your claim for damages within one year of your landlord’s illegal actions.

    If you think your damages are $5,500.00 or less, you can file your case in Small Claims Court. See the toolkit, I Have a Small Claims Case to learn about this process.

    Claims for Conversion

    Conversion means your landlord took control of your personal items with no legal right to do so. Before you can sue for conversion, you must ask for the items back and your landlord must refuse to give them to you. If your landlord locks you out of your home while your personal property is still in it, you may have a claim for conversion. If your landlord removes or destroys your personal property, you may also make a claim for conversion.

    If the judge finds in your favor, you may get three times the amount of your actual damages plus any lawyer’s fees.

    A conversion case is complicated and there is no simple form you can use. You may want to talk to a lawyer if you think you have a conversion claim. Use Find a Lawyer to look for legal help in your area. If you need a lawyer and are low-income, you may qualify for free legal help.

    Defending Eviction

    You can only be legally evicted by formal court proceedings. If your landlord follows the proper court process, you may bring your claim to recover your home or for damages as a defense or counterclaim to your landlord’s eviction action. Read Common Defenses and Counterclaims in Eviction Cases to learn more about this.